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History of the Piano

The history of piano playing began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Muzio Clementi during the Classical Period.

During the Romantic Period, Franz Liszt was wildly popular throughout Europe. Women would faint during his piano recitals and some threw jewels onto the stage. Liszt was one of the first stage idols and he was the first ever to perform solo recitals. Clara Wieck Schumann was the first recitalist to play from memory. Now it is commonplace for recitalists to feel they, too, must play without using any written music.

During the twentieth century, pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubenstein have been very popular in the United States.

Even though electric musical instruments were being developed before 1900, Robert Moog's synthesizer, developed in 1964, helped these new instruments gain in popularity. Instruments were developed with more capabilities, lower prices and became even more portable.

All major manufacturers now make their instruments compatible through the use of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) so that sharing information is much easier. Digital pianos, electronic keyboards and computers are becoming much more commonplace in music teaching and performing. The O'Connor Music Studio has five electronic keyboards and two computers available for such use.

In Praise of Pianos . . .
It's impossible to imagine life without the piano. The automobile, the computer and the pizza, maybe, but not the pianoforte. Since its invention in Italy around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a keeper of musical instruments for the Medici, it has become indispensable to our survival as a civilized people. What else, after all, has enriched society in so many different ways?

It's not only a versatile musical instrument but also a striking work of decorative art, a handsome piece of furniture, a complex product that generated a worldwide industry, a status symbol, a prop for Presidents (Harry Truman) and performers (Liberace), a muse for classical composers and Tin Pan Alley songwriters alike and, not to be overlooked, a constant reminder for millions of fledgling pianists that there is more to life than pleasure — namely, practicing.

Over the years, the piano's impact has been as impressive as its size. It has been called "the single great factor in the development of musical art and the dissemination of musical knowledge." During the mid-1800s, it was the embodiment of Victorian attitudes toward music. In the early 1900s, it became a symbol of domestic bliss in the middle-class American home, where "Give us a tune, Sis," was an oft-heard request. Today it continues to command esteem among players and nonplayers all over the world. Everybody who enjoys music (and who doesn't?) loves the piano.

Elaborating on that theme, the National Museum of American History opens a fascinating exhibition on March 9, "Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos." The show features some two dozen historic pianos, including one by Cristofori and the rectangular 1850 Chickering. The exhibition will run through March 4, 2001, at the Smithsonian International Gallery.

By Jim Doherty, In Praise of Pianos . . .

In Praise of Pianos and the Artists Who Play Them
In May 1975, Arthur Rubinstein, at 88 still one of the world's top concert pianists, returned for the last time to his birthplace, the Polish industrial city of Lodz. Not a seat or an inch of standing room was free in the Grand Theater as he launched into a typically demanding concerto program. No sooner had the last thunderous notes sounded than the stage was flooded with a sea of carnations, the audience cheered itself hoarse, the orchestra rose to applaud. As he had done throughout his long career, writes Rudolph Chelminski, the old maestro had his listeners wound around his little finger, demonstrating once again the power of the mysterious bond that ties a great concert pianist to his public.

Franz Liszt, granddaddy of the profession, drove his audiences to such fits of hysteria that ladies would hurl their jewels up onto the stage, shrieking and swooning, reports Chelminski. But it was Beethoven, as much as anyone, who set the standard for flamboyance. Once, when Beethoven was playing a new concerto of his with an orchestra in Vienna, he forgot that he was a solo player, and springing up, began to direct in his usual way. At the first sforzando he threw out his arms so wide that he knocked both the candles off the piano upon the ground. Two boys were deputized to take the candles off the piano and hold them, but at the next appearance of the fatal sforzando, one received Beethoven's backhand right in the kisser and dropped the candlestick clattering to the stage. There is no formula, says Chelminski, for becoming a maestro, but a distinguishing characteristic is that maestros almost always begin as child prodigies. Mozart, for instance, began at the harpsichord at age 3, began composing at 5 and touring at 6. Maddeningly, only a few prodigies deliver on their early promise. But luckily for us, as long as there are pianos, these promising musical geniuses keep springing up. The National Museum of American History illuminates the history of the instrument that has inspired these maestros in a fascinating exhibition opening March 9, "PIANO 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos."

Paderewski's Piano
When Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski toured America, he became a celebrity — and boosted Steinway

Its gleaming black frame perches with dignity on three fluted columns. The ivories are white, all bloodstains now carefully removed. Only the inscription under the lid of Steinway concert grand No. 71227 at the National Museum of American History — a few words in black ink scrawled onto gilt metal — bears testimony to a trying musical tour and the great musician who survived it: "This piano has been played by me during the season 1892-1893 in seventy-five concerts. I. J. Paderewski."

Today Paderewski is often recalled not for his music but for his famous epigram about diligence: "If I don't practice for one day, I know it; if I don't practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience knows it." By 1892, though, Paderewski was more than a great pianist; he was a mass-market wonder who inspired ad campaigns for shampoos, candy, soaps and party treats, even a windup toy of a little man frenetically pounding his little piano. "Paddymania," a London newspaper gasped, "has reached such heights that three New York ladies have embroidered musical phrases from [his] Minuet on their stockings."

Paderewski's triumphal assault on America started with a recommendation to William Steinway from an agent in London, urging him to sign a young Polish pianist for a U.S. tour. Ignace himself arrived in New York on November 1891, only to be gloomily greeted at dockside by Steinway representative Charles Tretbar bearing grim tidings. "You have had brilliant successes in London and Paris," Tretbar declared, "but let me tell you, Mr. Paderewski, you need not expect anything like that here in America.... We are not easily pleased here." Famous last words.

A grueling schedule put Paderewski through 107 concerts in just 117 days. Concerts often lasted for hours, but they included encores to appease the roaring applause. In an era when solo piano recitals were uncommon, Paderewski packed concert halls everywhere he went. But the tour nearly ended his career. In Rochester, New York, he walked onto the stage and struck the opening chords of Beethoven's Appassionata. Immediately, a scorching pain shot up his right arm as if something had shattered. He kept playing and managed to finish the concert. But he had seriously injured his hand on the stiff hammer action of the Steinway. He had often complained lightly about the "dangerous" action, cheerfully referring to the piano as "my enemy." But after Rochester he played in constant pain, needing massages and jolts of electricity before concerts just to get his injured finger to move. Doctors warned of permanent damage, but Paderewski insisted on honoring his pledge, even though it meant teaching himself to play with just four fingers of his right hand. He never recovered full use of his ring finger. But the 1891-92 tour was a tremendous boon for Steinway & Sons, which had been thriving ever since Heinrich Steinweg left Seesen, Germany, in 1850 and settled his piano-making business in New York City. Piano technology was a growth industry, and the Steinways were at the hot center. Tinkerers had been improving on Bartolomeo Cristofori's pianoforte since the early 1700s. Heinrich's son, Henry Jr., opened the lid on every piano he came across, looking for new ideas, among them the use of a cast-iron frame for holding heavy-gauge strings under enormous tension, which gave a more brilliant and powerful sound. Henry improved the metal frame's shape, rearranged the strings for a richer tones, made the soundboard more vibrant and improved the piano's responsiveness to the musician, logging seven patents in the process. By the time of his death in 1865 at 34, he'd essentially created the modern piano. His brother Theodor filed another 45 patents.

Each Steinway concert grand that emerged from the original factory in Manhattan was a masterpiece of some 40,000 parts, including screws, and the product of 300 craftsmen. In their advertising, the Steinways capitalized on Americans' love of technology, but for renown, they set their sights on demonstrations at Europe's great expositions, which also functioned as trade shows. Pianists played each piano on display, and judges awarded prizes for quality. National pride was often at stake. At the 1867 Paris Exposition, the Steinway competed with more than 400 pianos and took a gold medal. The Steinway triumph shifted the center of piano making from Europe to the New World. In 1890, Steinway & Sons made more than 2,300 pianos, part of a national industry that produced more than 150,000. From its roots as an amusement for the rich, the piano had become a token of respectability for all households, and the home entertainment center of the late 1800s. After Henry Jr.'s death, it was brother William Steinway, more than Theodor, who saw that artists' endorsements could broaden the market further. William started as the "bellyman" of the business — the person who installed the soundboard — and ended as a captain of industry. He paid touring musicians well but imposed a factory-like schedule on their performances. The tour he set in 1872 for the legendary Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein left Rubinstein swearing never to return to America. Paderewski, despite his injuries, found a second Steinway tour irresistible.

Paderewski was an exotic 32-year-old European widower whose poverty-stricken childhood was romantically embellished by ancient connections to nobility. He was no brooding artist, however, but a man with a disarming sense of humor. His appearance cast a spell of its own: pale, even features, dramatic cheekbones and an unruly mane of reddish-gold hair. Acquaintances often likened his effect to electricity. "He is electric as life," said one woman. Another pianist marveled at how Paderewski's "presence illuminated that room ...as though a blinding light had been turned on." The press seized on his dramatic plumage as a focus: a Philadelphia hack wrote, "It was only a feather duster / But she worshiped it, she said, / For its fascinating likeness / To Paderewski's head." "There's Music in the Hair!" chortled a New York headline. "Matinee Girls on Rampage!" warned another.

The eye of the storm was a deeply insecure performer who had begun formal study late, with a fingering technique that made his piano teachers groan. A London reviewer named George Bernard Shaw caught Paderewski's first concerts in London and alternated between scorn and praise. Shaw mockingly hailed "the immensely spirited young harmonious blacksmith" and his playing as "a brutal fantasia on the theme of the survival of the fittest." But Shaw also conceded Paderewski's genius for interpretation. Other critics agreed. "There are many persons who shun piano recitals as intolerable bores," wrote Henry Finck, music critic for the New York Evening Post, "but who never miss a Paderewski concert because when he plays, Bach and Beethoven are no longer riddles to them but sources of pleasure."

Paderewski launched his second American tour in late 1892 on a Steinway with improved action. This time around, he enjoyed his own private railcar with room for his secretary, valet, piano tuner, manager, chef and two porters. Crowds gathered at railroad crossings for a glimpse as he passed. He, in turn, was fascinated by his American audiences, who greeted him as "Paderooski" instead of "Paderevski." In Kansas City, he marveled as several hundred Texans arrived, all clutching volumes of music. "They crowded the hotels," he recalled later, "they gathered in clusters at the street corners, and they stood in line in front of the box office — all with their music in hand." He ate nothing on the day of a performance and worked out with dumbbells every morning. He practiced endlessly as well, to quell his nervousness.

There were some trials, too. Because nothing could keep him from the concert stage long enough for it to heal, a scratched finger grew infected under the relentless pressure of playing. During a performance the bandaged finger opened and blood seeped onto the keyboard. "I soon got accustomed to it," he admitted. "During the rest of that tour ... the keyboard was always red when I finished."

That tour netted him a princely $160,000. After four extra concerts to benefit charities, he was ready to return to Europe, only pausing long enough to play at the opening of the Chicago World's Fair, generously offering to forgo his fee as a tribute to his affection for bustling Chicago. That proved a mistake. Chicago's piano makers prided themselves on their superiority to East Coast outfits like Steinway and hoped that the fair's piano competition would prove their point. That seemed likely, since the contest was to be decided by just one judge: Florenz Ziegfeld, father of the Ziegfeld Follies impresario and head of the Chicago Musical College. As it happened, Chicago piano mogul W. W. Kimball sat on the board of Ziegfeld's college. The Steinways and other Eastern piano makers were outraged by this plan and caused a fuss by pulling out of the competition. Midwestern pianos, the New York Times sniped, "ill sound much better when they are not compared with the pianos of Boston and Baltimore and New York." Chicagoans responded by banning from the fair's stages any piano not entered in the contest. And that ran smack into Paderewski's agreement to play only Steinways.

With rumors flying and just days before President Grover Cleveland was to inaugurate the fair, Paderewski held firm. "Throughout the wide world, any artist is permitted to use the instrument of his choice," he announced, "and I do not understand why I should be forced to play an instrument of a manufacturer strange to me." Negotiations were still angrily proceeding when he reached the fairgrounds. Attempts to solve the piano stalemate embroiled a national commission and a piano committee and gave rise to some hopeless suggestions, one being that during his performance Paderewski rotate between several onstage pianos. On the morning of the day of the opening concert, fair officials decreed that the Music Hall was separate from the official Chicago World's Fair and so not bound by its rules. Paderewski could play his Steinway.

Still nursing an infected finger, he took the stage. Wind whipped through the unfinished hall. William Steinway, confined to a sickbed in New York, had followed Paderewski's progress by cables. His May 2 diary entry notes proudly, "Paderewski played at the Chicago Fair on Steinway grand in spite of all the opposition." Days later Paderewski sailed back to Europe. In his wake, he left a swirl of Steinway condemnations in the Chicago papers, and crowds that stretched around the block to see the piano he had played, which was on view in the Chicago Steinway dealership.

In his future, which lasted until 1941, when he died at 80, lay an even greater career as statesman — and patriot. He was Poland's premier in 1919 and the revered elder statesman of the Polish government in exile, defending the hopes of his country, overrun by Nazi and Soviet armies, with the same fiery determination and passion he had brought to his brilliant American piano tours.

By David Taylor, Paderewski's Piano

Guess what my li'l Chopin played today
When I was about 17, persuaded by arguments whose logic I have long since driven from memory (the guilty party must have been either my mother, who never sang a note, or my elder brother, who rather enjoyed bellowing), I briefly took singing lessons. One-on-one with Grace Lamarr in her Westport studio, I would assume the regulation posture — facing out toward the "audience," one hand demurely resting on the piano, the other at my chest in a kind of Presidential salute — and wreak cultural vandalism on Stephen Foster, Schubert or Mozart.

The only lasting knowledge I carried away from the experience was that "Il mio tesoro" could not possibly be sung by any normally constituted human being, unless Don Ottavio happened to have a wind tunnel built into his thorax. Mercifully for all, my career as an operatic tenor ended before I celebrated my 18th birthday.

A couple of decades later, fortuitous circumstance led me back in the direction of musical education — not for me this time but for my son. The fortuitous circumstance was named Nicole de Havilland-Cortes. She was a pianist who specialized in plunging kids into a bath of hot Bach. "The younger you get 'em, the better," she said in her business-like way "then full speed ahead! They'll get turned off to music forever if you try to pound scales and sight-reading into them. Just make them play, and everything else will come later."

Even age 3? "But yes," cried Mme. de Havilland-Cortes. "Perfect!" And so it was that our son became a child prodigy.

Well, in a manner of speaking. At 3, he had the advantage of up to 15 years over Mme. de Havilland-Cortes' other students, and everyone in show biz knows there's no competing with an animal or a kid. With his little blond head, his big blue eyes and his tiny feet suspended in midair from the piano stool, all it took was the first six notes (the slow ones) of Bach's unfinished fugue to knock any audience dead.

My wife and I made all the predictable noises that parents will make: "You don't suppose, I mean, um, that he really might be, well, uh, a prodigy?" Parents are such suckers. I'd be willing to bet right now that, at this very instant, there are at least a million couples around the world asking themselves the same question after hearing their darling's violin squawk or clarinet squeak for the first time.

We encouraged Romy, of course, and played him endless hours of classical music. He insisted on having the record cover in his hands as he listened, so he could look at the picture. One of his favorite pieces was Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite," even though the only picture on the cover was a big black-and-white photograph of Prokofiev, bald, bespectacled and benign. Presently we saw how deeply that image had worked its way into Romy's brain. "Look!" he piped up urgently one afternoon as we were driving to town. "There's Prokofiev on a motor scooter." Sure enough, a balding, bespectacled little man, benign of appearance, was weaving through the traffic.

That year Romy told us he wanted a wig for Christmas. Of course! Every picture of Bach on the record covers showed him wearing a wig. Did we actually go and look for one? We certainly did. Luckily a Star Wars spaceship came along that struck Romy's fancy even more, and we were spared the embarrassment of having our 3-year-old toddling around the neighborhood in an oversize white wig.

Romy's total immersion in music so thoroughly jumbled present and past, reality and imagination that it occasionally spooked visitors unfamiliar with his juvenile Weltanschauung. In the middle of his brief but all-consuming Chopin binge, a lady bent down to him, cooing: "And when did you start listening to these mazurkas, you sweet little boy?"

"When I was dead in Poland," he shot back, poker-faced.

Inevitably, the day came when we had to buy Romy his own piano. A mere upright wouldn't do, naturally — concertistes don't play on uprights — and it had to be white, because one of those record covers featured a white piano. We took out a loan and got a baby grand. What next?

Next, it turned out, was the beginning of the end of prodigyhood. As the years passed and Romy's feet grew closer to the floor, the moment arrived when he had to start reading music, doing scales and practicing-in short, working. That changed everything. That was boring. By the time Romy's feet reached all the way to the floor, my wife was playing that white piano more than he was. Well, you may turn them off Bach but not necessarily everything else. We discovered that a few years later, when that great clanging freight train called adolescence arrived. Romy went back to music after all, but not quite as we had figured ten or so years earlier. He discovered rock. Oh, dear.

Romy's in Boston now, studying to be a professional. He's practicing scales and reading notes. His instruments are electric guitars and synthesizers, and his daily references are not Johann Sebastian and Wolfgang Amadeus but Bon Jovi and Sting. His big old LP records have been replaced by compact disks, which come in those teeny-weeny boxes on which no kid will ever be able to see a decent-size picture.

The white baby grand? It's all paid for now — and hardly ever used.

By Rudolph Chelminski, Guess what my li'l Chopin played today


A line of music

Many thanks to Dearest for everything!


 
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